Flight Attendant Salary Explained

The majority of the flying public may not be aware that flight attendants aren’t paid while on the ground with the aircraft door open, greeting you while you board, or while saying goodbye as you deplane. This is the most common misconception. To better understand the salary of flight attendants we most take a closer look at the structure and different pay components that make it up. 

Unlike traditional hourly jobs in which you get paid the moment you begin working, the American aviation industry has created a different “industry-standard” in which flight attendants will begin getting paid their full hourly rate as soon as the aircraft door closes, like their pilot counterparts. 

Flight attendants are required to perform duties before the boarding door closes. These are called pre-departure checks in which they will check the appearance of the cabin, as well as the presence of all required safety equipment. They will take part in a crew briefing with the pilots and cabin crew. In addition to pre-flight checks flight attendants are required to greet and assist customers. While most employees on the ground doing something similar would get paid for this – all of this time is usually unpaid or paid at a fraction of your hourly rate if you’re a flight attendant. 

Depending on the airline and size of the aircraft flight attendants will be required to report for duty 50-90 minutes prior to departure. Again, this time is unpaid with the exception of the per diem which would begin at the start of duty, which is commonly referred to as the report time. In summary, the time from report to the time the aircraft begins to depart is unpaid…this is something most flight attendants don’t learn until after they’ve been hired. 

So, if you’ve ever been a passenger experiencing a lengthy delay and getting angry or have anxiety over it, you can now sympathize with your flight attendant crew instead. As each minute passes, their pay is being diluted which means they will be working longer than expected and receiving less monetary compensation for it. Airlines do have pay components that will provide the flight attendant a guaranteed minimum amount of compensation should that flight attendant experience an extended duty day but it’s not much compared to what they would make if the scheduled flights went as planned. 

First Component of a Flight Attendants Salary: Flight Pay

The main component of a flight attendant’s salary, which we will refer to as “flight pay”, are the total hours the flight attendant is on the plane with passengers either navigating the taxiways or flying in the air. The most common pay structure for Airlines based in the United States is to pay its crewmembers by the flight hour. Airlines like American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, and United pay their flight attendants by the hour (flight pay). As we learned above this doesn’t mean being paid every hour a flight attendant may be on duty representing the company.. 

Typically, flight attendants employed at major airlines in the United States will not receive flight pay until all customers are boarded, the doors have been closed and the pilots have released the aircraft brakes in preparation for pushback from the gate. Most airlines use the term “block out” for this. Flight pay will continue until the flight reaches its destination, parks at the gate, and the aircraft parking brake is set. This is known as “block in”. The “blocks” in question are referring to the chock blocks the ramp crew puts behind the landing gear wheels to prohibit unanticipated aircraft movement.  

Each airline has in place different pay components called “RIGS” to ensure the flight attendant receives some reasonable compensation during extended delays, long taxi times, diversions, gate holds, cancellations or any other event that causes scheduled flights to not go as planned. Some airlines are generous…some not so much. 

Rates of Pay

The rate of flight pay at each airline is different. Typically, flight attendants who belong to a union and are employed at a major airline will receive a higher rate of flight pay. Flight attendants will all receive the same rate of pay defined by their airline and that rate will increase every year the flight attendant celebrates an anniversary (which is referred to as “seniority accrual”) and will stop when they reach the top rate. Flight pay does not vary based on individual experience or performance. It is a set rate that all flight attendants within the same airlines will receive once they graduate and start logging hours. 

Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, flight attendants log between 75-100 hours a month of flight time. These numbers can vary at each airline depending on the airline’s work rules such as any cap on hours and if overtime is offered or available.  

Major US Airlines Starting Rates of Pay (FLIGHT PAY)

Alaska $27.78 Effective 12/17/2020 

Converted from TFP using TFP x 1.13

American $30.35 Effective 1/1/2019 

Delta $30.96 Effective 10/1/2019 

Frontier $24.51 Effective 5/2021 

Hawaiian $25.74  Effective 4/2/2021

JetBlue $21.00 Premium $26.02 Straight Effective 1/1/2018 

Southwest $28.91 Effective 11/1/2018

Converted from TFP using TFP x 1.15

Spirit $21.04 Effective 5/2020 

United $28.88 Effective 9/2020

Second Component of a Flight Attendants Salary: Per Diem 

The second main component of a flight attendant’s salary is “per diem”. This is compensation paid to the flight attendant for every hour they are away from base. Per diem typically begins when the flight attendant reports for duty and ends 15 minutes after the plane blocks into the gate on the final leg of a trip. The 15 minutes is called “debrief”.  

Per diem is meant to cover expenses such as meals and basic essentials while the flight attendant is away from home. The flight attendant will continue to accrue per diem even after the flight arrives at a layover and the flight attendant has checked into their hotel room for the night. In case you’re wondering, all airlines cover the cost of hotel rooms when flight attendants are required to layover while working a trip including transportation to and from the hotel. At major airlines in the United States per diem ranges between $1.50-$2.00 per hour. Some airlines pay a few cents more if the flight attendant is working an international trip which means flights from the United States to an International destination. 

For example, a flight attendant works a 4 day trip. From the time the flight attendant reported at the airport for their first flight until their 15 minute debrief on the fourth day, their time away from base (TAFB) totals 84 hours. The airline they work for pays $1.50 per diem so the flight attendant will receive $126 in per diem for that particular trip. If the flight attendant happened to work the same trip once a week, then the total per diem for that month would be $504. SOme flight attendants will prefer to work multiple day trips which will have a higher TAFB and bring as much food and essentials with them as a way to increase their salary. 

Per diem for multi-day trips in which the flight attendant is required to layover for one or more nights is not taxed. Some flight attendants will specifically bid for longer trips so that they receive more per diem pay.  Packing your own food and spending less on layovers are two ways that you can maximize your per diem allowance and keep more of that money in your pocket.  It’s not uncommon for flight attendants to want to sightsee, enjoy local nightlife, or shop while on a layover- which means they could end up spending more than they earn from per diem.  If one can afford that, no harm no foul because enjoying a layover is a part of the flight attendant experience!

Besides flight pay and per diem, flight attendants may receive additional compensation if they work a specific position on the plane, such as the “Lead Flight Attendant” or if they are language qualified on flights that require an interpreter. Depending on the airline, position pay ranges from an additional $2 to $3 per flight hour and language pay is an additional $2-$3 per flight hour. These pay components are only paid when the flight attendant is receiving flight pay- not for every hour away from base like per diem.  

As you can see, flight attendant pay isn’t as clear as a blue sky! Some airlines don’t really go into detail when they hire new flight attendants and for a good reason. The idea of not getting paid for the first hour you’re at work, the time you are on the ground experiencing a delay or in between flights would not be very alluring for potential candidates. Many flight attendants complain about the lack of a true hourly rate for every hour they are at work. It’s important to note that pilots are also paid the same way for their flight time. Pilots might not be as perturbed by this since they receive a much higher rate for flight pay and also have lower limits for how many hours they can fly each day and remain on duty.  It’s important to note that this is the aviation industry standard and is not likely to be changed anytime soon.  

Due to the unprecedented disruption COVID-19 has put on the airline industry, flight attendants may be facing potential involuntary layoffs (furloughs), involuntary base transfers, company requests to take extended leaves of absence or to retire early/buy-outs, and pay or hours reductions.  It’s unfortunate and will all depend on each airline’s financial health, government stimulus, the ability for management to come to reasonable agreements with each flight attendant union and, most importantly, getting the public flying safely again as soon as possible.  

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